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G-20 Summit in Pittsburgh Highlights Economic Decline of Former Steel Capital

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Leaders and delegates for the G-20 arrived in Pittsburgh Thursday evening under the shadow of a police crackdown on protesters. The city is no stranger to protests and has a long history of labor uprisings. We speak to longtime Pittsburgh resident, historian, and labor organizer, Charles McCollester, on the changing face of this former steel capital. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Leaders and delegates for the G-20 arrived in Pittsburgh Thursday evening under the shadow of a police crackdown on protesters. Heavily armed riot police were out in force all over the city and used tear gas, stun grenades, smoke canisters and sound cannons, which direct extremely loud shrill sounds. This is believed to be the first time sound cannons have been publicly used in the United States.

Well, Pittsburgh is no stranger to protests. The city has a long history of labor uprisings. For more on the changing face of this former steel capital, we’re joined by longtime Pittsburgh resident, historian and labor organizer, Charles McCollester. He is a retired professor of industrial and labor relations at Indiana University of Pennsylvania and the former director of the Pennsylvania Center for the Study of Labor Relations. His book is titled The Point of Pittsburgh: Production and Struggle at the Forks of Ohio. He was a machinist at Union Switch and Signal in the late 1970s and is the founder of the Tri-State Conference on Steel and the Steel Valley Authority, both active in the Mon Valley plant shutdown struggles of the 1980s and ’90s.

Charles McCollester, welcome to Democracy Now!

CHARLES McCOLLESTER: Thank you very much.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, tell us, first, your sense of the protests and how Pittsburgh has been brought back onto the world stage, in essence, with the G-20 summit there.

CHARLES McCOLLESTER: Yeah, it was very interesting. I was down near the front lines of the two different anarchist groups that tried to march downtown. And there were, I don’t know, 500 to a thousand police directly where I was standing.

And it was ironic because it was about a quarter of a mile from the 26th Street crossing, where in 1877 the Philadelphia militia marched into the yards, pushed about 10,000 strikers and supporters into a bottleneck at that crossing, and a rock or two was thrown, and the militia opened fire point-blank into the crowd and killed twenty people, including a woman and a child, at which point the Pittsburgh militia, who had been sitting on the hillside watching this, was seen throwing away their uniforms, but not their guns, and they went after the Philadelphia militia, and a fourteen-hour gun battle ensued, in which the militia was driven out of town, under fire all the way across the Allegheny River. And about ten miles outside of Pittsburgh, they were still being fired at.

So it was amazing standing there. I was there with maybe a hundred just Pittsburghers, curious, standing there and waiting for the anarchists to arrive. And they got — actually got — one of the contingents got lost in our crazy network of streets. And I thought, if somebody throws a bottle down — there was a whole group of us standing on a rise above the scene — we could have a very nasty situation here. We had one protester standing in there with “corporate greed” and the — suddenly, two contingents, about a hundred each, of police began putting on their gas masks and raising their clubs against this one guy with a sign about corporate greed. So it was a very tense moment and could have turned into something very nasty.

Basically, though, the Pittsburgh police were to be generally — certainly in this case, what I saw — credited. They were the most levelheaded and the most experienced group there. What was more scary were some of these outside police groups which don’t understand the local terrain and the local people.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And what’s been the reaction of Pittsburgh residents, both to the protests and to the, basically, cordoning off of the downtown area for the G-20 summit?

CHARLES McCOLLESTER: Well, there’s been, I think, a lot of resentment about it. Virtually, the way the terrain is here, virtually all the buses have to pass through downtown. And basically it’s the poor and the working class who use the buses. So there has been a lot of disruption. And so, it’s very mixed. I mean, in the comments of the very working-class or lower-class neighborhoods that I was in the other day, it was mixed. I mean, some people were cheering the kids on and saying, “Go to it.” Others were saying, “What are you doing here? Get out of my neighborhood!” So it was very divided.

Generally, the young people and the anarchists did not attack any mom-and-pop-type stores. They rolled garbage cans into the street and things like that. It was later in the evening, apparently, in Oakland, where the most of the breaking of windows took place, and that was largely, according to this morning’s papers, a University of Pittsburgh crowd, who was then tried to be — it was broken up by the police. After the dignitaries left the Phipps Conservatory, the police moved on this group, and that’s when most of the destruction, or physical destruction, took place.

Today, there’s a large peace and social justice march. It’s permitted. It’s a very long march. And we’ll see what happens. That march will come from Oakland, where last night’s violence was at its peak, into downtown. They’re going to be stopped at the security perimeter. And, of course, there’s all kinds of potential for disruption by individuals and groups who want to disrupt or by the various police forces that are here, which are truly astounding. About 4,000 police are on the streets. So, I had to walk here this morning. Entries are blocked for private vehicles from the entire downtown. It’s a locked-down city. I kept saying to people, as I was standing on the corner, “This is what democracy looks like?”

JUAN GONZALEZ: Let me ask you about how Pittsburgh itself is faring. It’s long — was long the steel capital of the United States, and western Pennsylvania, a center of coal production, as well. How has the latest economic crisis and financial collapse affected Pittsburgh and western Pennsylvania?

CHARLES McCOLLESTER: Well, in fact, the latest one hasn’t affected it as much as the rest of the country, basically because we’ve already — we collapsed in the ’80s and early ’90s. And so, this is being touted as we’re the great transition, the great example of a transition to a new economy. The problem with that analysis is that our population was cut from 1960 at 740,000 to 320,000 now. Our working class were — 200,000 industrial jobs were lost in southwestern Pennsylvania. And they’re all over the country. It’s what we call Steeler Nation. There are nine Steeler bars in Montana. We have people all over the country, and those folks didn’t go there willingly. And they still love this town. They have a lot of nostalgia for it. But that was the industrial — the great industrial working class really was dispersed here earlier. So this great success that’s touted here is really not replicable. We don’t have a place to put them. In the 1980s and early ’90s, the economy in other parts of the country could absorb the industry refugees. This is — the whole country is in trouble now, and there’s really — this is not a solution.

But during its heyday, Pittsburgh was arguably, for fifty years, the most productive place in the entire world. It produced unbelievable amounts of coal, steel, glass. It invented, basically, alternating current. It was where oil was first refined. It was where a lot of modern food processing was invented. So this town was really a founder of industrial society on the global scale. At present, we produce almost nothing here.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And what kind of jobs have replaced those industrial jobs?

CHARLES McCOLLESTER: Basically, medical. We have a huge medical center. We have a heaviest concentration of universities, both of which are nonprofits and don’t pay taxes into the city coffer, so the city is basically on the verge of bankruptcy for years, cutting services to the neighborhoods. The suburbanites, who are two-thirds of the in-Pittsburgh workforce, pay a pittance toward upkeep of the city. And so, the entire burden of the city really rests on people making $33,000 a year, which is what the average wage in the city of Pittsburgh is. So it’s an incredibly inequitable tax system.

People are angry about it. And of course, you know, the right-wing commentators try to direct people’s anger toward the government. Government’s full of plenty of sins here, but the real problem is the corporate dominance, which has skewed the whole system against the working class.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, the city is also being touted now as a green center. And the convention itself, or the G-20 summit itself, is being held in a center that boasts being green — having lots of green technology. Your sense of whether — the potential for replacing those steel jobs with new green jobs?

CHARLES McCOLLESTER: Well, listen, this is the most — to me, this is — from the very beginning, the first day I saw this, in 1973, I saw Pittsburgh, I thought it was one of the most beautiful cities in the world. And I’ve been in fifty-five countries, hitchhiked in thirty-five of them. And it’s much more beautiful now. But they’re claiming that they made it green. But they really — it was not governmental action, or the only action was leaving and closing all of the industrial production here. That’s what made it green. So it was not positive action, it was really negative action, that caused the city to clean up.

There’s a lot of wonderful efforts at green building — certainly support all that. But what I’m much more interested in, and I think the steelworkers’ union and others are much more interested in, is we want green manufacturing. We want solar panels, wind. We want mass transit. I’ve been involved for years trying to get a Maglev system built in the United States. The only place where it’s being built commercially is China. That was a chance to revive high-tech manufacturing jobs.

The establishment here really does not want manufacturing. They were happy to see the industrial working class be disbursed from here, had been their longtime antagonists. And they’re really not interested in manufacturing at all. And that’s very deeply rooted here, and it’s very deeply a class issue, because Pittsburgh once had a huge middle class, industrial, unionized, with benefits, family wages, middle class. That has been dispersed. And what we have now is a growing two-class system: very wealthy, those who benefit from the new healthcare economy, global economy, and then people who are in the service sector who make qualitatively different wages.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And you mentioned a history of the union movement there in Pittsburgh and western Pennsylvania. The AFL-CIO recently had its national convention —-


JUAN GONZALEZ: —- and elected Richard Trumka, someone well known to you and folks out in western Pennsylvania. Do you see any hope and any changes in the American labor movement that may facilitate or make it possible for a resurgence of that working middle class?

CHARLES McCOLLESTER: Well, yeah, I think Richard Trumka is a very intelligent guy. He’s a militant guy. And I think Leo Gerard here with the steelworkers is one of the most sophisticated labor leaders in the country.

And I think the reason why — the difference between here and Seattle is that the labor movement basically stood back here, I think out of respect for President Obama. He came to the AFL-CIO convention last week, promised a healthcare reform, which would have a public option. He promised employee free choice. And also he took direct action in terms of the dumping of tires by China onto the American market. And I think those things were very much appreciated here. They’re certainly going to try to hold the Obama administration to its promises. But I think, you know, at this point, they’re relatively optimistic. We definitely need employee free choice.

I mean, the issue back in 1877, right near where we were standing yesterday, was wealth versus commonwealth. And the commonwealth is suffering, and great wealth has been thriving. And there has to be a way to extend regulations, universal global standards of labor, of human rights and environmental rights. Those are the three key things, I think, globally.

And I think Leo Gerard, in particular, the steelworkers, understand this very well. They’ve reached out to unions all over the world. They’ve been very involved with the Sierra Club and the environmental movement. They understand this need to have environmental rights along with labor rights. And I think that’s the way forward. And hopefully we can get somewhere with the — getting the workers’ right to have a voice on the job and expand the power of the labor movement and begin to both regulate the finances, which is what this is ostensibly about, this meeting in Pittsburgh, but also to create global standards of labor rights, human rights and environmental rights.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, Charles McCollester, a retired professor of industrial and labor relations at the Indiana University of Pennsylvania, I want to thank you for being with us. He’s also the author of The Point of Pittsburgh: Production and Struggle at the Forks of Ohio.

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